Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Short- vs. Long-Term Learning

Time slipped away from me over the past 2 weeks. Between a science conference, a cultural symposium, report cards, the start of coaching, proposal deadlines, and the usual busy-ness that comes with teaching/marking/planning/conferencing, this blog (and, sadly, many of my personal extra-curricular activities) have lately fallen to the wayside.

Which is too bad, because with the results of that second unit test 2 weeks ago have come some pretty interesting traits of my class.

Leading up to the test (and you can read the past few blog entries), I was seeing encouraging signs of progress. Students were working through the material better, experiencing more success, and managing their time more appropriately than they did in the first unit. I was really, really looking forward to the results of the test, hoping I’d have the ability to proudly announce: the system is working!

But alas, that was not to be. The average of the test decreased from 60% to 56%, and while I saw everyone move out of the 11%-30% range (hoorah!), there was also NO increase in the number of students getting over 70% (level 3-4 Ontario standard). In fact, I actually gained a student in the 1-10% range over the unit 1 test.

What is going on? Students had the advantage in this unit: they knew what to expect, knew how to navigate the material, had the benefit of learning from their struggles in unit 1, and yet there was very little noticeable improvement in their grades.

(As an aside, it is a completely different topic as to whether or not we should be using numerical grades to judge the amount of learning our students have accomplished. I do so here as it is currently the way in which our education system works. I’ll leave its validity open for debate at another time.)

One-on-one conferencing with each student after the test shone a bit of light on what was causing the stagnation. For the most part, those who did not do well on the test did not learn the material thoroughly the first time through, and did not spend quality time reviewing leading up to the test. Both of these, to me, are huge flaws in the implementation of a BYOD course like this.

My students look at the unit and chunk out what they need to do to succeed in the quickest way possible: master the learning goal and PROVE IT on the exit slip, all in one fell swoop. For many, as soon as I complete the mini-lecture, they’re asking for the slip. “Go and practice a bit first,” I tell them. “Make sure you solidify what we just learned and make it stick!” Sometimes they do, most of the time they don’t.

This works well for demonstrating mastery immediately on the exit slip, but then when it comes to the test a few weeks later, they don’t take the time to review, assuming that since they “knew” it at one point in time, they’ll be fine for the test. But they rarely are.

What is the solution? I don’t want to go back to marking worksheet upon worksheet that proves the students are practicing. Ideally, I would love to have a peer teacher guarding the binder of exit slips, handing out slips only to those students who can show they’ve done some further practice. Or is this just a process the students have to figure out for themselves? 

Monday, November 18, 2013

...and then the power went out.

When I started designing this course around the use of technology and BYOD, there were a lot of things I had to worry about: students’ access to devices, consistency of Internet connection, and connectivity speed among others. In the back of my mind there was always a little voice saying “This is all great, but wait! What happens if the power goes out?”

But with a zillion other things on the go, I dismissed the little voice, until one day, we found ourselves without Internet connection.

Luckily, that day, we did have power. The students couldn’t access the master list since it was a Google Doc, but I was still able to project it up on the board from my computer. Though the students were limited in what they could access (videos, online interactives and websites were out), they could still ask for a mini-lecture from me, the textbook was still available, and since all our exit slips and quizzes are done on paper, they could work their way through those. A lack of connection that day actually didn’t affect us as much as I thought it would.

(Today, too, we are without power due to a windstorm last night. The students were much less focused, having to work away in the dark, but the impact on their potential learning is the same as that first day with no Internet.)

I have two lines of thought on this. The first is: Hoorah for differentiation! From the start I always tried to include “traditional” methods of learning and resources for each learning goal, like the textbook, so that students who preferred this method always had access to something they were comfortable with. In the trigonometry unit we are doing now, I have an investigation using Geometer’s Sketchpad, but also an investigation using paper plates, metre sticks and giant pieces of paper.

When we lose our ever-precious connection, having those pencil-and-paper resources to fall back on makes the difference between being able to still engage the students or lose a whole period due to being unable to access anything.

My second thought is that I’m torn… I love the idea of paperless classrooms, and as I continue to tweak and adjust what we’re doing in the course, I think about having Google Forms instead of paper exit slips; movies of my mini-lectures instead of me doing them in person; all investigation instructions online. I would reduce our class binder (and all that paper!) down to nothing. Depending on what I use, some of my marking might even be done automatically, freeing up my time to help students in class.

But if everything was online… what happens when the power goes out? I’m in a rural school with limited cell coverage, so it’s safe to assume this is an issue I’ll always have to deal with. How do other BYOD teachers manage their classes when they lose power and/or connectivity?